From a Jewish Haven in Vienna to the Death Marches of the Holocaust

It was only when Leo saw the smoke from the crematorium that he understood that he would never see his father again.


Moshe and Golda Luster, 1942. Photo courtesy of Centropa.

Before the First World War, Vienna, the seat of the old Habsburg dynasty, was the capital of a great multi-ethnic empire brimming with culture, art, and history. It’s where more than 175,000 Jews lived including textile salesman Moshe Luster and his wife Golda.

Moshe and Golda were married in Vienna in 1919 and in 1921, their first child, Helli, was born. Six years later, their son, Leo joined the family. The Lusters lived, like many other Jewish families, in Vienna’s second district, on 12 Schreygasse Street which was a Jewish world of its own. The children attended a religious school and the family attended the local synagogue on Shabbat and holidays. The Lusters enjoyed the cultural experiences Vienna had to offer and particularly loved going to the theatre together to watch the comedic films of the era. But as the years went by, the Lusters learned that the Jews had nothing to laugh about.

Moses and Golda Luster’s wedding photo. Photo courtesy of Centropa.

Friday, March 11, 1938.

Moshe and Leo Luster were in the synagogue for traditional Shabbat prayers. On their way home, a neighbor stopped Moshe on the street and said, “Mr. Luster, something terrible has happened. Chancellor Schuschnigg (Chancellor of the Federal State of Austria) has resigned.” Moshe Luster knew at once: this was the beginning of the end.

Leo Luster
Leo Luster, 1935. Photo courtesy of Centropa.

The Austrian military had been instructed not to resist and the next day the Germans marched on Austria. The Viennese public quickly took up the cause and began wearing swastika armbands. Soon after, the Jews of Austria became a hunted minority. The beautiful multi-ethnic metropolis that was Vienna ceased to exist as the Nazi party took over the country and occupied all government functions.

The country’s Jews, including Moshe Luster, lost their jobs, their apartments, and their dignity. Eight months after the initial invasion of the Germans, the pogrom of Kristallnacht brought out the worst in a nation that had once been so accepting.

Moshe, Golda, and their children watched as their Viennese neighbors rioted.

They stood helplessly by as they burned synagogues and destroyed Jewish shops.

Thousands of Jewish men were arrested – Moshe was among them.

He was eventually released by the Nazis but was given strict orders not to speak of the horrors he experienced at the hands of his imprisoners or risk further trouble.

From December of 1938, the Jews were segregated from the rest of the city. Jewish children were required to attend separate schools and were not allowed to play in public parks. The Jewish community found the only solution available – they opened the Jewish cemetery as new playgrounds for the local children.

With their synagogue lying in ruins, the Luster family was forced to hold Leo’s bar mitzvah quietly in the family home, with the curtains drawn tight.

Jews began frantically fleeing Vienna, taking refuge wherever it was offered. Moshe managed to get Helli out of the country and sent her on her way to the Land of Israel. Leo and his parents were not so lucky.

On 24 September 1942, the Nazis deported Moshe, Golda, and Leo from Vienna. Leo was just 15 years old when he was forced into a crowded train car for the two-day journey to Theresienstadt

Postcard with a photo of Terezín before it became a Jewish ghetto. Photo courtesy of Centropa.

Terezín was originally built by Emperor Joseph II as a fortress in the 1780s, and after 1918, it was used by the Czechoslovakian army. The Nazis turned it into the Jewish ghetto of Theresienstadt and filled it with tens of thousands of people forced to live in squalor.

Leo was put to work in the kitchens. While the work was labor intensive, he was grateful to have enough to eat. Sometimes the youth was even able to smuggle rations out of the kitchen to his parents. Leo would watch as people were hauled out of the Ghetto in train car after train car. On September 28th, 1944, Leo, Moshe, and 2,500 others were added to the transport list.  Golda was left behind to fend with fates unknown.

Postcard of Theresienstadt. Photo courtesy of Centropa.

Moshe and Leo spent two days traveling in a cramped cattle car. The train stopped suddenly in the middle of the night and the men were forced out of the car into a brightly lit area surrounded by electric fences where they were stripped of all their belongings. One by one they were forced to stand in front of an SS officer.

“What is your profession,” the officer asked Leo.

He wisely answered, “electrician.”

Leo was sent to one side, Moshe to the other. It was only a few hours later, when he saw the fires from the crematorium, that he understood that he would never see his father again.

Three weeks later, Leo was sent to a labor camp in Gliwice where he was forced to repair train cars. A few weeks later, on January 18, 1945, the SS officers gathered their prisoners and forced them to march through the terrible conditions of the dead of winter, barefoot and in tattered clothing. Those who could not go on were shot and left for dead.

Finally, they stopped marching. They had arrived at a camp called Blechhammer. The SS officers locked their prisoners in the barracks and set fire to the buildings. Those who tried to escape were shot. But Leo managed to hide and avoid the inferno that claimed the lives of his fellow prisoners.

After some time, Leo dared to sneak out of his hiding space. The Nazis were gone and Leo set off, walking along the street that led out of the camp in search of help. He came upon a group of trucks with red stars on their hoods. A Russian soldier approached him and Leo shouted out in Yiddish: “Yid, ja. Yid, Yid.” – I am a Jew.

The soldier looked at him and said, “Ja tosche Yid.” – I too am a Jew.

Leo Luster in Katowice with Polish and Russian soldiers in 1945. Photo courtesy of Centropa.

Leo guided the soldiers back to the smoldering ruins of the camp. The soldiers gave the surviving Jews food and water and cared for them. A few weeks later they made their way to Krakow, where they received identification documents from the Red Cross.

One day, a Russian officer turned to Leo and said, “The war is over, you can go wherever you want.”

Leo had but one mission in mind: to find out what became of his poor, beloved mother Golda who had been left behind to fend for herself.  He set out on his journey to Theresienstadt. He traveled by train and through the kindness of others who were willing to pick up a refugee hitchhiker. He arrived in the newly liberated Ghetto and immediately sought out those who would have information on Golda’s whereabouts.

Leo found Golda hiding in a tiny attic.

“Where is your father?” she asked.

For more on the story of Leo Luster, please visit the Centropa website.

This post was written as part of Gesher L’Europa, the NLI’s initiative to connect with Europe and make our collections available to diverse audiences in Europe and beyond.


What Would You Serve at a Passover Seder During the Korean War?

The soldiers who participated in Operation Matzo were probably grateful both for the welcoming service and for the food that reminded them of home.

Soldiers celebrating Passover in Seoul, South Korea, 1952. Photo courtesy of the American Jewish Historical Society.

Soldiers celebrating Passover in Seoul, South Korea, 1952. Photo courtesy of: The American Jewish Historical Society.

If you were hosting six hundred people at a Seder during the Korean War, what would you serve for the Seder meal? According to a menu that appears in a Haggadah printed for American troops in Korea in 1952, the correct answer is matzah, kosher wine, gefilte fish, chicken soup with kneidlach (matzah balls), and finally, macaroons for dessert.

It’s not so hard to imagine the challenges in providing an elaborate, traditional Jewish meal to hundreds of soldiers in the middle of a remote war zone. This festive meal was made possible by a coordinated effort of Jews and gentiles, soldiers and civilians, and people on both sides of the Pacific Ocean.

הגדה קוריאה
Haggadah used for the Passover Seder by the Jewish American troops in Korea in 1952. From the National Library of Israel Collections.

The Chaplains: The Seder was organized and officiated by two Jewish chaplains, who also were the authors of the Haggadah. Herbert Chanan Brichto, a recently ordained Reform rabbi who began his rabbinic career as a chaplain in Korea, dubbed their efforts “Operation Matzo.” His colleague, Harry Z. Schreiner, also a Reform rabbi, had served in two congregations before becoming a chaplain. Schreiner would go on to an illustrious career in the military, receiving several awards for his service. But in a 1951 interview with a Jewish newspaper, he proudly reported that he had become “the biggest scrounger in Korea”, which was probably his most relevant skill for this particular operation.

The Jewish Organization: Back home in the United States, this Seder was business as usual for the Jewish Welfare Board (JWB), founded in 1917 to serve Jews in the military. According to a JWB document from World War II, the organization had already sent supplies and educational materials to chaplains organizing Seders in dozens of countries all over the world, many of them large-scale events.

The General: The Seder efforts enjoyed the full support of the United States Army, which has a policy of accommodating the diverse religious needs of its troops. The US Army granted Jewish soldiers time off for the celebration, moved army operations out of the abandoned schoolhouse in Seoul that the chaplains chose as the location for their Seder, and transported the soldiers from all over Korea to that location. But they also showed their encouragement in ways that went well beyond mere accommodation. The Haggadah begins with two pages of Passover greetings from the top military brass stationed in Korea. Many high ranking officers also attended the Seder.

הגדה קוריאה

It’s possible that some of these enthusiastically supportive officers felt a connection between Passover as a holiday of freedom and their larger mission in the Korean War. The Korean War (1950-1953), in which American and other troops helped South Korea repel an invasion by Communist North Korea, was seen by Americans as part of a global struggle against Communism – a fight for values of democracy and freedom.

The highest ranking officer to attend the Seder was General F.F. Everest, the commanding general of the US Fifth Air Force, who delivered an address to the soldiers as part of the festivities. We have no record of what he said at the Seder, but in his greetings inside the Haggadah he wrote:

Even as the Ancient Hebrew people answered the call of freedom symbolized by Passover, we too must heed its voice and stand fast in preserving freedom’s principles for the world of our time.

A Unique Haggadah

The Haggadah compiled for this event by Rabbis Brichto and Schreiner is the only Haggadah in the National Library of Israel’s vast Haggadah collection to be written and published in Korea. The 32-page booklet contains photo offsets of Haggadah texts from other Haggadot, but there are also various songs and dedications typed in by the chaplains. The Haggadah’s cover is decorated with hand-drawn insignias of the main military units involved in the Seder, with the insignia of the Jewish chaplaincy in the middle. A schedule printed on the back mentions only one Seder on the first night but shows that prayer services took place for three days, from Passover Eve until the second day of the holiday.

הגדה קוריאה
A page inside the Haggadah used by the Jewish American troops in Korea in 1952. The Hebrew text was printed upside down. From the National Library of Israel Collections.

Preparing a Haggadah in Korea must not have been simple: a page in which the Hebrew text appears upside down illustrates the challenges of working with local printers who were not familiar with Jewish text. However, in his recollections in the 1962 book “Rabbis in Uniform,” Brichto describes the Seder, and the Haggadah, as a great success:

The Seder began with the Cantor’s magnificent rendition of the Kiddush. Thanks to the Haggadah which we had specifically prepared and published in Korea, the service was smooth, dignified, and inspiring. Although the power failed, the service continued without interruption. From the stage we were awed by the sight of that huge auditorium, extending almost without end in all directions, ablaze with the light of thousands of candles.

Tradition and Innovation

The Korean Haggadah is designed to appeal to soldiers from a variety of Jewish backgrounds. While some prayers and songs, such as the Kiddush at the beginning, appear in the original Hebrew, the bulk of the readings and many of the prayers are in English. The chaplains typed in popular Hebrew Seder songs transliterated into English so everyone could join in.

הגדה קוריאה
Passover Seder menu from inside the Haggadah used during the Korean War by  Jewish American troops. From the National Library of Israel Collections.

The soldiers who participated in Operation Matzo were probably grateful both for the welcoming service and for the food that reminded them of home. But like so many Seders, often the most special part is the opportunity to be with family. Brichto recalls:

There were many highlights to this first Seder, not the least being the superb meal… but the heartwarming scenes were the reunions. Captain Dunn of the 45th division came up to the platform to ask that an announcement be made, “Is Captain Dunn’s brother here tonight?” Came the ecstatic answer from the rear of the auditorium, “Here I am, Jimmy!” And there were other equally moving reunions. Brother met brother and uncle found nephew at that Passover Seder in Korea.


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Braille Haggadot: The Exodus from Egypt at Your Fingertips

A look at Passover Haggadot written for the blind and the visually impaired


A Braille Haggadah. Photograph: Hanan Cohen

The ancient Biblical command, “Tell your child,” led to the appearance of the “Haggadah,” the text which is traditionally read at the Passover Seder (“Haggadah” is derived from a Hebrew root word which means “to tell” or “to say”). The Haggadah, one of the most ancient and central texts in the Jewish culture, apparently first took shape in the Second Temple period, and its form has largely remained stable from the Middle Ages to the present day. While originally the command “to tell” was interpreted as an instruction to recite the Passover story out loud, in public, today no Seder is complete without a written Haggadah.

Haggadot in Braille

As such, it is no surprise that the blind and the visually impaired also have need for a Haggadah  and are unwilling to make do with reciting the texts aloud. The National Library of Israel is in possession of seven Passover Haggadot written in Braille. Six of these were printed in Israel in recent years by various institutions that provide services to the country’s blind citizens, while another was printed several decades ago in the United States.

A Braille Haggadah. Photograph: Hanan Cohen

This American text produced in the early 1950s and acquired recently by the National Library, is likely one of the first Braille Haggadot ever printed.

How is a Braille Haggadah Printed?

The Passover Haggadah is an essential ritual item in the Jewish year cycle and there is naturally  great demand for Braille copies of the text among visually impaired Jewish readers. Ms. Esti Maouda from the Central Library for the Blind, Visually Impaired and Handicapped located in the Israeli city of Netanya, shared some more details with us on this topic.


A Braille Haggadah. Photograph: Hanan Cohen

First, as one would expect, Braille Haggadot are printed without illustrations. Braille is designed to transcribe text and does not relate to any other kinds of graphic elements. Maouda confirms that the Netanya Library has been in possession of a number of Braille Haggadot since its founding, sixty years ago. The library has many subscribers who are either blind, visually impaired or have other disabilities. All of them are in need of Passover Haggadoh. Therefore, ten years ago, the institution mounted a campaign to print numerous Haggadot and send them to all its subscribers, eliminating the need to maintain a large inventory of Haggadot and of having to deal with the lending and return process. Today, the library in Netanya offers a print-on-demand service. A subscriber interested in obtaining a Haggadah in Braille can contact the library and a Haggadah is printed for them.

What kinds of Braille Haggadot can be found at the Library for the Blind? There are three different versions available. The most popular is a regular Haggadah featuring the standard text. In addition, one can find Haggadot which feature the classic text alongside commentaries. The third type, perhaps the most intriguing and poignant, is a Haggadah which includes songs and stories for children. This version is used by blind parents who wish to read to their children as well as by blind children who prefer to take an active part in the Seder ceremony around the table. All the Haggadot in the Netanya library are in Hebrew.


A Braille printer. Courtesy of the Central Library for the Blind, Visually Impaired and Handicapped in Netanya

A Braille Haggadah: A Perishable Book

As any collector or library with a collection of Haggadot will tell you, the Haggadah is a particularly perishable book:  signs of use are especially evident in an item used during the Seder, a culinary event that lasts for hours. Esti Maouda insists that a Braille Haggadah is no exception. It too absorbs wine stains, and food crumbs typically become stuck in between its pages. Therefore, every once in a while the Library for the Blind receives a request for a Haggadah from someone who is already in possession of a copy but whose Haggadah was either badly stained or torn. And, naturally, the same process of erosion that occurs with any Braille book is also evident in Braille Haggadot: the more a book is read, the more the raised Braille dots on the page become worn down, with the text then becoming more difficult to read.

Today, the use of Braille books is on the decline. New computer technology, which can convert onscreen text into Braille dots that a blind person can feel with their fingertips, has made the thick, heavy Braille book redundant. However, because of the ceremonial use of the Haggadah at the Seder, the demand for Braille Haggadot remains high and many blind celebrators of Passover continue to use these books to this day.


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Between Two Worlds: Feminist Yiddish Poetry in America

The fascinating life and works of one of the greatest female poets of the Yiddish literary world

Malka Heifetz Tussman

Yiddish poet Malka Heifetz Tussman seemed to have known a thing or two about lust – a subject she describes in her writings as being a part of God’s very nature. Malka also seems to have known a thing or two about the lives of those who were given an extra drop of that Godly passion.

In the beginning,
there was lust.

Out of lust, God
emerged in flames.

is God’s nature.

Everything God creates
is in God’s nature.

Whoever gets more
of God’s nature –

a teardrop more –
becomes an artist, a poet.

One more drop –
a murderer.

(In the Beginning)

Malka Heifetz Tussman was born in Wolyn in Ukraine in the late 19th century, though her exact year of birth is unknown. She was the second of eight children born to a Hassidic family of landowners and she spent her childhood on the farm run by her grandfather. Malka was a lively, rebellious girl with an affinity for nature who felt foreign in the world she grew up in.

At the age of eight, on her own initiative, Malka joined the nearby general Russian school, becoming the first Jewish child to attend it. It was at that tender age that she began to write poetry in her native Russian using the familiar letters of the Hebrew language. Several years later, due to the pogroms which targeted the region’s Jews, her family decided to emigrate to the United States. Her brother was the first to make the move, and, at the age of 16, Malka followed him across the Atlantic Ocean to start a new life.

Upon reaching America, Malka settled in Chicago and like many other young Jewish immigrants, she began to work as a seamstress and laborer. Though the family had been wealthy in Ukraine, they suffered from poverty during their early years in America.

Despite the material struggle and the hard work, Malka was fascinated by the new world and tried to adapt as fast as possible. She quickly learned English – both the spoken word and the language of English poetry.

“Edgar Allan Poe. I love the rhythm of his poems,” wrote Malka. “I walk on the sidewalk to the pace of his poems. I chew my breakfast to the pace of his poems. English begins to sing in my bones.”

Malka even began to write in English, but, within a short period of time, she went back to writing in Yiddish.

Yiddish poetry at the time was alive and vibrant. The authors hovered between two worlds – their native countries in Eastern Europe, and America, their new home. They also teetered between Torah observance and secularism, and between different social values – with feminism playing a major role in their work. The female poets of that generation were the first ones with the opportunity to build their lives beyond the traditional female roles. In addition to Heifetz Tussman, this wonderful group included leading artistic figures such as Celia Dropkin, Anna Margolin, Kadia Molodowsky (who would also eventually make it to the United States) and many others.

Despite the obvious quality of their writing, the female Yiddish poets often encountered derision regarding their works. Their writing was placed in a different category that set them aside as female poets – as writers of poetry which was intrinsically restricted and even slightly inferior.

Malka Heifetz Tussman, image from the "In geveb" website
Malka Heifetz Tussman, image from the “In geveb” website

Perhaps on purpose, Heifetz Tussman chose poetry structures that were considered inherently “male” and wrote poems on the “big” topics of the day which were also considered the domain of male poets. However, she also wrote extensively about women and about her own inner femininity. Her aspiration for freedom and expansion as a woman shines through in her writing, but its practical implementation was more complex, both in her private life and in how she defined herself as an artist.

Malka was 18 when she married Shlomo Tussman. The couple had two children. Tussman’s profession – a cantor – led the couple to frequently move from one community to another. Before they married, ever the free spirit, Malka set two conditions: firstly, that she would not be required to take part in Tussman’s religious and communal activities, and secondly – that she would have her own room wherever they lived.

Malka with Shlomo Tussman, photo: Ben Tzadok. the "In geveb" website
Malka with Shlomo Tussman, photo: Ben Tzadok, the “In geveb” website

Malka never stopped writing, but many years passed before she published her first book. She objected to the definition “female poet,” and unlike others Heifetz Tussman refused to allow her poems to be included in a 1928 anthology dedicated to female poetry. She saw the distinction between female poetry and “regular” poetry as illegitimate.

Malka was very open to the different trends, ideas, and styles of her period. She constantly aspired to learn, to expand and to choose; to place herself within the boundaries – and to break them. In her writing, she moves, experientially, between poems with an inflexible structure such as the sonnet and the triolet, and free-form writing, though even poems lacking any defined structure have somewhat structured content with most of Heifetz Tussman’s poems moving in a certain direction, toward release. She herself writes: “I am confined/within the form/I am short of breath/in my poems”.

In her early days in America, Heifetz Tussman had a definitively secular outlook. Later on, following the events of the Second World War, the Jewish world made more frequent appearances in her work. The main reason for her detachment was always her aversion to the institutionalism of the traditional world she grew up in, and not to the individual religious experience. Many of her poems are addressed to God, with longing:

With one sound of your many names,

You pierced yourself in me —

 and now you feed

 on my heart’s blood.

Malka Heifetz Tussman’s inner world is expressed in her poems. No clear distinction is made between globally significant events and those of her personal life. Heifetz Tussman left nothing out– she wrote of protest, her own spiritual search, and ordinary day-to-day events.

Her poems also lack any distinction between rational thought, emotions, and ethics. Perhaps such distinctions would contradict the very nature of Heifetz Tussman’s work, the power of which stems from her complete devotion to everything she writes about.

In a poem dedicated to Marcia Falk, Malka’s student and one of the translators of her poems into English, she wrote:

“Do not shy away from writing

about the small things

Large things give themselves over

in units to the small things.

The small things

spur on large things.”

Malka lived everything with the same passion and internalized it all, expressing it through her poetry. Above all, her poetry reveals her wonder for life itself: “Oy, what you can do with life in the hand”, She wrote in one of her poems.

Malka Heifetz Tussman’s deep wonder for life itself was expressed in her many poems about nature. Nature comes alive in her poems and is depicted as a conduit to enable a person to draw close to the riches of life. However, in her poetry, closeness to nature also accentuates the gap between humanity and nature. Nature has a certain wholeness and understanding and the questions people may ask are already clear and understood by nature.

Often I stroll in a nearby park;

old trees wildly overgrown,

bushes and flowers blooming all four seasons,

a creek babbling childishly over pebbles,

a small bridge with rough-hewn railings-

this is my little park…

Leaning on the railing

looking at myself in clear water,

I ask;

Little creek, will you tumble and flow here


The stream babbles back, laughing:

Today is forever.

Forever is right now.
(Excerpts from “Today is Forever”)

Life itself, with all its wholeness and bounty, also always contains pain – pain when it ends, pain when it’s flowing bounty halts. During the Second World War, in 1944, Malka Heifetz Tussman hoped to re-awaken the wonderment of her son who returned from the war. She described a green leaf, a red flower, a toy, and the smell of a homecooked meal. Further on in the poem, she shows him the wider world – towers, trains, bridges, and also talks to him about faith.

Over the years Malka Heifetz Tussman became a respected teacher and even worked in translation. She translated Yates and Auden, Christina Rossetti and Rabindranath Tagore into Yiddish, but from her own words it is clear that her initial admiration was reserved for Walt Whitman through whom, to a certain degree, she discovered America and experienced a new horizon of poetry.

Abraham Sutzkever, the famed Yiddish poet, said that the older Malka Heifetz Tussman got, the younger her poetry became.  “Everything she touched turned into poetry” he added.

Malka kept in touch with the Yiddish poets of the younger generation, teaching and guiding them. As one of her students, Kathryn Hellerstein explained, Malka Heifetz Tussman became a bridge between the generations – between those who emigrated from Eastern Europe and the young Jewish poets who took it upon themselves to make Yiddish poetry more widespread among readers with scant knowledge of Yiddish.

Heifetz Tussman moved to Israel following her husband’s death but returned to America a year later at her children’s request. She died on March 30th, 1987 in Berkley, California after publishing six books during her lifetime (the first was published when she was already over fifty). Malka had been working on her seventh book when she passed away. It was eventually published after her death.

English translations of the poems are taken from “With Teeth in the Earth: Selected Poems by Malka Heifetz Tussman,” translated, edited, and introduced by Marcia Falk (Browser Books Publishing, 1992).

This article originally appeared in Hebrew in the “HaMusach” online literary journal hosted on the National Library website.


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